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The Pros and Cons of Learning Assessments

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The Pros and Cons of Learning Assessments

Debating the Territory-Wide System Assessment in Hong Kong

Learning assessments are considered essential for measuring and improving the quality of an education system; yet for some they also raise serious concerns. The controversy over Hong Kong SAR’s Territory Wide System Assessment illustrates the issues at stake.


It has become widely accepted that students’ learning must be assessed in order for education systems to evaluate and improve on their own quality over time. Around the world, the majority of countries apply one or more forms of assessments and examinations at different educational stages (see the UNESCO Institute of Statistics catalogue of assessments). Regional and international assessment programmes and tools have proliferated, and data on international indicators is already being collected to measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals on indicators such as proficiency in reading, mathematics, and basic ICT skills.


Yet there has also been marked resistance from some education stakeholders to the rising use of learning assessments. Opponents argue that over-reliance on learning assessments leads to a narrowing of the educational experience, places undue pressure on students and weakens their intrinsic love for learning, and—despite advancements in measurement—can ultimately provide only a very limited picture of many important aspects of a quality education.


It has often been argued that low-stakes assessments can overcome many of these concerns by simply offering a snapshot of quality among a sample of students, without tying reward or punishment directly to the results. However, in many contexts even low-stakes assessments have been the subject of intense public debate. One case in point is the controversy over the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.


“TSA has dominated learning and teaching as well as the test and examination modes in schools, thus causing a metamorphosis of education.”

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Dr. Honourable Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, Member of the Hong Kong SAR Legislative Council

“The TSA is the only assessment at primary levels that can provide objective, comprehensive and quality territory-wide data on basic competencies.”


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 Mr. Eddie Ng Hak-kim, Hong  Kong SAR Secretary for  Education


Following are excerpts from discussions in Hong Kong SAR’s Legislative Council, illustrating the public controversy over the Territory-wide System Assessment.


Dr. Kenneth Chan: Constituents’ concerns over the Territory-wide System Assessment

“Currently, students of Primary 3 and 6 as well as Secondary 3 are all required to take part in the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) administered by the Education Bureau. The purpose of TSA is to gauge students' attainment of basic competencies in the three subjects of Chinese Language, English Language and Mathematics at various stages, with a view to improving learning and teaching.  However, some education concern groups and parents have earlier remarked that some schools drill their students in the hope that they will get good scores in TSA, and this practice has exerted great pressure on teachers, students and parents. Also, TSA has dominated learning and teaching as well as the test and examination modes in schools, thus causing a metamorphosis of education.  Hence, they request the Education Bureau to abolish TSA.

In this connection, will the Government inform this Council […] whether it will conduct a comprehensive consultation with teachers, parents, students and the public to gauge their views on TSA's operations and future direction, and decide, in the light of the consultation outcome, if TSA should be abolished or maintained; if it will, of the details of such a consultation exercise; if not, the reasons for that?” [1]


Mr. Eddie Ng Hak-kim, Secretary of Education: In defence of the TSA

“[T]he territory-wide assessment data help the Government review policies and provide focused support to schools, [and] individual schools can make use of the school-level report to devise plans for enhancing learning and teaching. TSA is a low-stakes assessment that does not assess and report performance of individual students. Neither does it affect advancement in education nor allocation of school places for admission to Secondary 1. The data is not used for ranking or classifying schools. It is also not an index for imposing measures on schools to cease operation. The "five nots" are very clear.

[…] Since the implementation of the TSA at P3 in 2004, the Education Bureau (EDB) and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) have been continuously attending to and collecting views and suggestions from various stakeholders on the TSA, including their concerns of workload for teachers and impact on schools and students. […] On the whole, stakeholders recognised the significance of the TSA assessment data for learning and teaching. However, we are aware of the concerns expressed recently by education groups and parents about drilling for TSA in schools. Due to the different situations of individual schools, some schools might misconceive that assigning a huge quantity of homework, supplementary exercises and practice drills could consolidate learning of content knowledge, which leads to the impression that the drilling culture in individual schools is attributable to TSA. However, they are two different issues.

The EDB has updated and issued circulars and guidelines on homework and tests on October 31, 2015. It is clearly stated in the circular that with the incorporation of the curriculum targets into daily learning activities, the effective use of different student learning evidence collected (including that not from test or examination), as well as the application of appropriate tools for monitoring, recording and reporting performance and learning progression of students, teachers can devise teaching plans for the next stage of learning without the need to change the teaching and learning as well as assessment approaches for the purpose of TSA. Schools are also reminded in the circular to formulate an appropriate school-based homework and assessment policy. […]

The TSA is the only assessment at primary levels that can provide objective, comprehensive and quality territory-wide data on BCs [basic competencies]. It is irreplaceable by internal tests or examinations in schools. Thus, the decision to abolish the assessment should not be taken lightly. Besides, the TSA is not an assessment administered on a frequent basis. They are conducted at the end of the key learning stages of P3, P6 and S3. In other words, primary students will take part in TSA only once or twice.

In fact, both local and international research evidence indicates that students' learning gap normally starts to widen at P3 or P4 levels. In this connection, the TSA data, which helps teachers understand the attainment level of BCs of P3 students, can be used together with other internal assessment data by teachers to identify learning difficulties and make necessary improvement in learning and teaching at an early stage. Otherwise, the gap between the high and low achieving students will be widened as they progress towards P6 level. Assessments of similar nature for students are conducted in a number of countries such as Australia and Canada, and even in some developing countries. We firmly believe in the need to help students build a good foundation and provide early support. Abolishing the TSA at P3 would represent a regression in this respect.”[2]

Dr. Kenneth Chan: Arguing for the Primary 3 TSA to be abolished

“[W]hile the abolition of the Primary 3 Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) is being debated in this Council, the online group in support of such an abolition has already received responses from more than 76 000 members of the public. […] Regarding the Secretary's comment that the Bureau has already issued guidelines to remind schools of "No Drilling", I think it is simply nonsense.  Even Government Primary School students are required to undergo drills for the TSA, too.  What effort has the Secretary made?  Will schools and other people heed his advice of "No Drilling"?  Since everyone is drilling, children are compelled to bear the heavy pressure.  Actually, students begin to face this problem since Primary 1. [… S]chools will still label themselves, whereas sponsoring bodies will still label themselves or make comparisons.  School principals, parents and teachers will feel very frightened at seeing the TSA scores.  As a result, they will be compelled to boost students' performance.

[…] In a public opinion survey conducted by the Civic Party, 70% of the respondents said over the telephone that the TSA had brought heavy pressure to bear on parents, teachers, schools and students.  Likewise, 70% of the respondents supported the abolition of the Primary 3 TSA to give primary schools more room for teaching and learning, with a view to allowing teachers, parents, students and schools to do their part rather than concentrating on TSA drills for the sake of achieving targets ― it is found that targets really exist ― or else they will be informed that they have failed to achieve the targets.

[…] The Civic Party is now making a clear call for the abolition of the Primary 3 TSA.  If the Secretary considers it to be an issue of immense significance, he may consider suspending the Primary 3 TSA first.  He has once brought the Secondary 6 TSA to a halt and then implemented it on a biannual basis for reconsideration later because of the complaints lodged by Primary 6 students of excessive pressure and the need to attend to too many things concurrently.  Now, I am telling the Secretary that the pressure borne by Primary 3 students is too heavy, and so the Primary 3 TSA should also be suspended. 

[…] Even if there is no TSA, primary schools still have internal and external assessment systems; even if there is no TSA, primary schools still have regular tests and examinations and still can do a proper job of teaching and learning.  Would Eddie NG please allow educationists who know best to do the job.  We can do well even without TSA.  Please allow teachers, parents and students to happily feel the tradition and spirit of true education.”[3]


Compromise: A trial period for the TSA

As of 2016, the Hong Kong Education Board accepted the recommendations of a Coordinating Committee on Basic Competency Assessment and Assessment Literacy, to institute a “Tryout Study” of the TSA with a select number of schools. The goals of this study, Mr. Eddie Ng Hak-kim explained, are:

i. “to validate whether the TSA papers and item design revamped based on the recommendations on enhancement from the working group would uphold the reliability and validity while aligning with the requirements of basic competencies of Primary 3 students to tie in with the curriculum and student learning;

ii. “to try out whether different reporting formats could meet the needs of individual schools;

iii. “to strengthen the provision of professional support measures for schools on homework policy, assessment literacy, enhancement of learning and teaching (e.g. via the promotion of reading) as well as TSA in the course of the Tryout. Public education would also need to be strengthened so as to enhance stakeholders' awareness of the TSA as part of the concept of "assessment for learning" with a view to enhancing quality education;

iv. “at the territory-wide level, to keep track on the attainment of basic competencies of all students in Chinese Language, English Language and Mathematics and to provide continuous data for other related studies; and

v. “to demonstrate in good faith the low-stakes nature of TSA that it would not exert pressure on school sponsoring bodies, schools and parents; and to foster mutual trust through participation, sharing and collaboration in promoting quality education with a view to facilitating effective and pleasurable student learning.”[4]


The debate over Hong Kong SAR’s TSA assessment and broader culture of examinations is ongoing, illustrating the tensions between assessing key aspects of learning, and the transformations of the learning experience that may take place—positively and negatively—in response to assessment.


News Coverage of the TSA Controversy:

1. South China Morning Post: 90% of Hong Kong schools may be exempted from controversial test - but parents are still worried

2. Young Post: Hong Kong’s TSA isn’t going anywhere, but it might get simpler

3. China Daily Asia (Opinion): TSA no worse than any test

4. Young Post (Opinion): The TSA is just a symptom of Hong Kong's sick education system

5. The Standard: Schools invited to TSA trials seem happy to do so

6. South China Morning Post: Hong Kong parents say pushing children too hard doesn't work





[1] Excerpts from the transcript of a Legislative Council meeting, included in a press release from November 4, 2015 and accessed on August 30, 2016.

[2] Excerpts from the transcript of a Legislative Council meeting, included in a press release from November 4, 2015 and accessed on August 30, 2016.

[3] Excerpts from the transcript of a November 25, 2016 Legislative Council meeting, accessed on August 31, 2016.

[4] Excerpts from the transcript of a February 24, 2016 Legislative Council meeting, accessed on August 31, 2016.